Running on the Inclined Plane of the Altar in the Second Temple
by Chaim Katz
בראשונה ... רצין ועולים בכבש, וכל הקודם את חברו לתוך ארבע אמות זכה
We read in the Mishna:
[The priests used to compete for the honor of separating and removing ashes from the altar] by sprinting up the ramp. Whoever was the first to reach the top four cubits was entitled to remove the ashes. Mishna Yoma 2:1
One of the first authorities to question the practice described in this mishna was Eliezer ben Samuel of Metz who lived in the 12th century. He was a Tosafist and a student of Rabbenu Tam. In his Sefer Yereim (Negative 311), he compared the description given in this mishna with a conflicting description given in the Mekilta DeRabbi Yishmael: (Masechta d’bhodesh parsha 11):
מה ת״ל אשר לא תגלה ערותך עליו שלא יפסיע פסיעה גסה אלא עקב בצד גודל וגודל בצד עקב
What do you learn from the verse “don't go up to my altar by stairs so that your nakedness isn't revealed near it” (Ex. 20:23)  - that one doesn’t take large strides when stepping up to the altar, rather heel-next-to-toe and toe-next-to-heel.
Apparently, the Mekilta DeRabbi Yishmael forbids not only running on the ramp, but even forbids regular, normal, walking on the ramp.
Another Tosafist, R. Moshe of Coucey (13th century) in his Tosafot Yeshanim on Yoma 22b re-raised the problem. Over the years and centuries, many others suggested ways of resolving this difficulty. 
A solution occurred to me based on the idea that maybe the priests who sprinted to the top of the ramp were acting improperly and not following the teaching of the sages. Our sources report a number of temple practices that were initiated by groups who followed their own teachings. For example: the practice of lighting incense outside the kodesh ha kedoshim on Yom Kippur (Yoma 19b), the practice of not offering the water libation on the altar on sukkot (Yoma 26b), the practice of following a different calendar and bringing the omer offering on Sunday (Menahot 65). 
Although I don’t have a proof that the races on the ramp were improper, the Talmud itself encourages this perception (Yoma 23a):
ת"ר מעשה בשני כהנים שהיו שניהן שוין ורצין ועולין בכבש קדם אחד מהן לתוך ארבע אמות של חבירו נטל סכין ותקע לו בלבו עמד רבי צדוק על מעלות האולם ואמר אחינו בית ישראל שמעו … געו כל העם בבכיה בא אביו של תינוק ומצאו כשהוא מפרפר אמר הרי הוא כפרתכם ועדיין בני מפרפר ולא נטמאה סכין
We read in a baraita. It once happened that two priests were racing up the ramp … when one got close to the other and stabbed him … R. Zadok stood on the steps of the temple and eulogized the slain priest: Listen my brothers the house of Israel ... All the people burst into tears. The father of the young priest had meanwhile found his slain son in his death throes, “The knife is still ritually clean”
The obvious contrast between the father who “cared more about the purity of the temple vessels than about the murder” and the people who were present listening to R. Zadok and weeping, demonstrates that the priest (the father) didn’t see himself as part of the community who was present in the temple nor did he share the priorities of the rabbis. 
If so, there really is nothing to reconcile: a priest is never allowed to run on the ramp. Historically, there was a time when the rabbis had little control over what the priests did. The Mishna is describing one of those times. However, when the circumstances changed and the rabbis had the opportunity, they stopped the racing and substituted the lottery in its place. 
Standing in Prayer
The Mekilta’s teaching is not quoted in the Babli, but is quoted in the Yerushalmi, albeit in a different context. We read in the Yerushalmi (Talmud Berakot 1:1):
זהו שעומד ומתפלל צריך להשוות את רגליו. תרין אמורין רבי לוי ורבי סימון חד אמר כמלאכים וחד אמר ככהנים. מאן דאמר ככהנים לא תעלה במעלות על מזבחי שהיו מהלכים עקב בצד גודל וגודל אצל עקב. ומאן דאמר כמלאכים ורגליהם רגל ישרה.
One who stands up to pray must hold his feet together. Two teachers: R. Levi and R. Simon. One of them says: like angels. The other one says: like priests. The one who refers to priests quotes: “Don't go up to my altar by stairs” (Ex. 20:23). They walked with heel-next-to-toe and toe-next-to-heel. The one who refers to angels quotes: “Their legs were as one straight leg” (Ez. 1:7)
It isn’t very clear how to visualize that the kohen walking on the ramp towards the altar, serves as a source and paradigm for the custom of standing with one’s feet together during the amidah prayer. Many commentaries therefore, found a practical difference between these two opinions: if we compare ourselves to angels, then we stand with our feet together and parallel to each other; however if we compare ourselves to priests, then we stand in prayer with one foot in front of the other. 
The Oxford manuscript of the Mekilta has a slightly different description of the way the priest walked up the ramp. Based on the manuscript and a careful reading of the rest of the passage in the standard editions, the comparison between walking on the ramp and standing with our feet together in prayer is much more straightforward:
אלא גודל בצד עקב ועקב בצד עקב ועקב בצד גודל
Rather toe-next-to-heel and heel-next-to-heel and heel-next-to-toe
According to the manuscript, the priest stood with his feet together before taking every step. Instead of taking a full step (moving his heel about 20 inches) he took half steps (moving his heel about 10 inches each time). 
In addition, when the Mekilta teaches that the priest walked heel next to (בצד) toe, it doesn't mean that he moved one foot completely ahead of the other, with the back of the heel of one foot touching or parallel to the top of the toe of the other foot. Rather the priest took even smaller steps so that the length of the big toe of one foot was “next to” or parallel to the heel and lower instep of his other foot. I experimented and found for me, at each step my heel only moved forward about 6 inches. At this pace the legs are hardly parted.
This is all to say that if you were present in the courtyard of the Israelites (about 50 feet away from the priest walking up the ramp), you would see the priest standing with his legs held together heel to heel 50% of the time (assuming all steps took an equal length of time). Even when he was “walking”, he moved his legs so slightly apart that he would appear to be standing still. The long robe he wore that reached down to his ankles also helped to conceal his movement. Picture the priest walking up the ramp as someone standing still on a slowly moving sidewalk or some similar example. He looks almost motionless, as he inches forward smoothly towards the top of the altar. (I did a test on level ground. Walking this way, it took me a little more than three minutes to cover about 32 cubits).
It’s likely that both amoraim in the Yerushalmi agree that we pray with feet held together parallel to each other. They each cite a different pasuk, but they’re expressing the same idea.
On the level of the aggadah, there may be a different lesson from each teaching. We’re fortunate to have R. Kook's aggadic interpretation on the meaning behind aligning one’s feet together in prayer like the angels: 
המתפלל צריך שיכוין רגליו, שנאמר ורגליהם רגל ישרה. הרגלים משמשים פעולת ההליכה ופעולתהעמידה. לפעולת ההליכה עיקר שימושם הוא במה שהם נפרדים, בפעולת העמידה עיקר שימושם הואבמה שהם מתאחדים. במהלך שלמות האדם יש הליכה, להוסיף לקנות שכליות ומעלות מדותיות. וישעמידה, היינו שהדברים שקנה יהי' קנינם חזק בנפשו, לא יפסידם איזה שינוי וגירעון במצבו... ובזההאדם מתדמה לפי יכולתו לשכלים העליונים, שקניני שלמותם חזקים במציאותם, בהיות ג"כ עיקרתעודתם לעמוד בשלימותם ולא להוסיף עליו.ובזה ג"כ נכללת השתדלות האדם בתפילה שתהיינה מעלותיו קנויות אצלו ומוטבעות
Legs are used for walking and standing. In the activity of walking, the legs' usefulness consists in their being parted; in standing, in being held together. To advance towards perfection, to progress in virtuous conduct and intelligence, man must move. To entrench in his personality what he has already acquired, man must stand still. He must not allow any change for the worse in his circumstances to let him lose what he possesses...Torah is essentially designed to increase man's perfection and exaltation. It is referred to as 'a path'... Tefillah impresses virtues already acquired making them stable and enduring. Here man is likened, to the extent that he is capable, to the supreme intelligences whose perfection is firmly ingrained in their selves - their intrinsic function being to preserve their perfection, not to add to it 
I’m not capable of extrapolating a similar lesson from the comparison with priests walking up the ramp. However, I feel that we have a enough key words to associate the way the priests walk up to the altar with ideas like refinement, growth and free choice on one hand, and ideas like slow change on the other. With this in mind we can at least get a fuzzy feeling for the difference between standing with our feet together in prayer like angels and standing with our feet together like priests walking up the ramp.
 I notice that in some humashim the pasuk is numbered 22 instead of 23. I was looking in some modern editions of Moreh Nebukhim, and saw two editions that reference this pasuk as 26 (following non-Jewish chapter and verse (?)).
 The common approach to synchronizing the two taanaitic sources is a compromise. Kohanim may run or walk quickly on the ramp but must take smaller than normal strides. Another approach claims that the mekilta’s opinion is rejected and priests may run normally on the ramp. Some present an opposite view and understand the mishna as a description of priests running towards the ramp, but not running on the ramp. And some interpret the mekilta to be talking about the altar itself – the kohanim may run on the ramp but may not take big strides when walking on the top of the altar. I’m sure there are more solutions.
 Racing or competing seems very Hellenistic. Megillat Taanit lists a number of semi-holidays that were established when the rabbis prevailed over the temple priests.
 Maybe this obsession with purity in the temple identifies these priests as Sadducees as in the Mishna Para 3:6 “they would touch the kohen who was about to prepare the ashes of the red heifer because the Sadducees believed…”. But even if the priests weren’t Sadducees or Boethusians, they might still have been ignorant of the teaching of the Rabbis. The Mishna mentions high-priests who were illiterate. The Sifra mentions priests who had to rely on the sages to tell them if a leprous mark was clean or unclean.
 The Talmud explains that running up the ramp was discontinued because it was too dangerous. It doesn’t say that the race was improper on unlawful. However, R. Saul Lieberman discusses something similar in Hellenism in Jewish Palestine page 139 in the chapter about The Three Abrogations of Johanan the High Priest. He writes that “the Rabbis were sometimes reluctant to reveal the reasons which moved them to enact a new law. Moreover, in order to make the people accept a new ordinance the Rabbis occasionally substituted some formal legalistic grounds for the real motive.” He’s speaking there, (in one of the examples), about the knockers who stunned the animal by hitting it on the head before slaughtering it. The Talmud says the reason this practice was abolished, because it made the animal treif, but the Tosefta gives a different reason for abolishing the practice - because it mimicked what was done in the heathen temples.
 One of the first to present this interpretation is the Talmidey Rabbenu Yona page 5a of the Rif on Berakhot . Many commentators of the Yerushalmi have given the same explanation.
 This variant is quoted in the Mekilta, Horowitz-Rabin edition, (end of Yitro) p. 245 (line 2) and is visible online here. R. E.Z. Melamed in Essays in Talmudic Literature (Heb.) Iyunim b’Sifrut HaTalmud) published in Jerusalem by Magnes press in 1986, (the original article was published in Tarbitz in 1935), demonstrates that the Oxford manuscript is much more accurate and authentic than the early print of the Mekilta that Horowitz reproduced as the main text of his edition. On the other hand, the two other manuscripts of the Mekilta, which are displayed on the web site mentioned above, are identical to the printed version with respect to this sentence.
According to the Oxford Mekilta manuscript the Kohen walked this way on the ramp: stand with your left foot ahead of your right foot. Take a small step forward with your right foot until your two feet are aligned. Move your right foot forward again so that it is ahead of your left foot. Now move your left food forward until your two feet are aligned. Move your left foot forward again. Note that you’re moving the same foot two times in a row.
 compare (for example): Zeiri of Dihavet said to Rabhina, “You derive that idea from that pasuk and we derive the same idea from this pasuk.” – Taanit 7b
 The Babli, Berakot 10b, has the comparison to angels but not the comparison to priests. R. Kook’s comment is printed in the Siddur Olat Ray"h , (in the anthology portion) just before the Amidah. This section was probably taken from his Ayn Ay"h commentary on Babli Berakot #153. I don’t have access to the printed Ayn Ay”h. The online version (without the editor’s notes) is here.
 This paragraph is the work of Rabbi Leonard Oschry, in his English translation of Netiv Binah called Meditations on the Siddur by B.S. Jacobson, published by Sinai Publishing, Tel Aviv, Israel 1966. There is also an English translation of R. Kook’s explanation by Rabbi Chanan Morrison here.